Virtual Reality on the Horizon

From Inside Higher Ed:

Researchers who have worked with virtual reality for years are monitoring the interest with concern. For Todd Richmond, director of advanced prototypes and transition at the University of South California Institute for Creative Technologies, the hype is reminiscent of the early days of the dot-com bubble, or when colleges rushed to create mobile apps in response to the growing popularity of smartphones.

“What they ended up creating was crap,” Richmond said in an interview. “Right now there’s a big land rush and a big money rush into VR. … There’s going to be a lot of bad VR, a lot of money wasted.”

The ICT, an independent research unit of USC, dates back to 1999, when the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory teamed up to create a research center that would bring together academia, Hollywood and the gaming industry to work on technology for training and therapy purposes. Its intern alumni network includes people such as Palmer Luckey, the entrepreneur who founded Oculus.

Richmond said companies that claim to have “solved” content development for virtual reality aren’t telling the truth. The technology is “fundamentally different than a computer screen, a TV screen or a phone,” he said, and it will take developers years to figure out how to not just capture viewers’ attention when they can look wherever they want, but also how to create experiences that serve an educational purpose — and understand why they are effective at doing so.

“There’s where higher education’s role comes in,” Richmond said. “Higher education needs to be a driver of understanding the social, health, ethical, moral and socioeconomic ramifications of the new medium.”

Like massive open online courses or indeed any sort of technology that experiences a surge in hype, virtual reality will eventually face some form of backlash, Richmond said. That doesn’t mean it will go away, he added. The internet didn’t disappear after the dot-com bubble burst, and massive open online courses are still enrolling learners from all over the world.

Despite his own criticism about the current state of the conversation about virtual reality, Richmond had a simple message for colleges and universities: “Just experiment.”